Dam Breaching Or Not,
by Editorial Board
The $900 million deal federal agencies have made with tribal foes may not end a long-running court battle over endangered salmon and the big federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
But it does represent progress, because it does two things: It implicitly recognizes that four controversial dams on the Snake River are not going away anytime soon, and it spends ratepayer money on action instead of lawyers.
Under the agreement announced Monday, four Northwest tribes would abandon their legal opposition to federal fish management policies in exchange for $900 million earmarked for habitat improvement and other salmon recovery efforts.
The tribes and the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power from the dams, hailed the settlement as a landmark agreement that could help move beyond litigation to collaboration. If they're right, it would be a boon for a region that has spent money and time fighting over endangered and threatened fish runs that could have been better invested in actually restoring them.
As truces go, this one is incomplete. Tribes that are party to the settlement could not sue for 10 years, in the hopes that will allow enough time for demonstrable progress toward recovery of vulnerable salmon runs. But plenty of others stand ready and willing to continue the pursuit of a goal that's just not going to happen: partial removal of four dams on the lower Snake River.
The settlement doesn't win over environmental groups that have been at the forefront of a lawsuit alleging that federal agencies are failing to manage the Columbia River system as required by the Endangered Species Act. Nor does it buy the acquiescence of a fifth Northwest tribe, the Nez Perce.
The deal also assumes that the government's latest rewrite of its scientific plan to balance dam operations with fish survival - called the biological plan or "bi-op" - will satisfy a federal judge. That's a big assumption. Judge James Redden of Portland has proven he's no pushover, having rejected the government's last two drafts.
Redden is growing impatient, and a third failure could prompt him either to take over or to hand the job of writing the biological opinion to the next administration.
The sheer size of the settlement - nearly twice what had been anticipated - underscores how much is on the line for dam operators as well as Northwest power customers.
Ratepayers who have already dug deep over the last 20 years will have to pony up still more to restore habitat and manage the dams more aggressively to avoid salmon kill. There is no guarantee that the measures dictated by the settlement will save endangered salmon, but they are worth trying. This is part of the price the region must pay for the blessings of cheap and clean hydropower.
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